Undoing the overshare in social networking

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Social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and Flickr make is easy to share our lives online. But, too much sharing can backfire.

People have been fired, or have seen their marriages fall apart, because of a picture posted online that they'd forgotten about. The European Union is currently working to rewrite its directives on digital privacy. And as part of that, some are suggesting giving users the right to be "forgotten" online.

Author Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger thinks people should be allowed to put an expiration date on their uploaded information.

"I suggested that we have a renaissance of forgetting in the digital age," says Mayer-Schoenberger, author of the 2009 book "Delete."

There are programs designed to help. German computer researchers have developed Xpire, a system that allows you to put an expiration date on your photos.
Helping out your digital footprint

"We just realized that more and more people joined social networks, and they tended to put in much information on the very first day, including lots of pictures, that later on became disadvantages for their job search and also for their private life," says the head of the Xpire project Michael Backes.

Users can use the Xpire software to encrypt photos before they're uploaded, specifying a date when each picture will expire.

"Once this specific date has been reached," says Backes, "the key server will just not give out this key anymore. So, it's like a time protection. Whenever the expiration date has been reached, the key is not accessible anymore, and so no one on Earth can still view this image."

A similar project, headed by Yoshi Kohno at the University of Washington, is called Vanish. It allows users to set an expiration date for the text they post online. But Kohno admits there are limits. He says, "if someone has access to the data before the timeout, and they want to preserve a copy, they can do so. The simplest example is that you send an email to a friend, and they want to keep a copy forever, they can make a copy of the screen."

Backes admits that there is currently no ultimate solution to securing online privacy. But he can imagine many different applications for the technology.

"You can use it to let whole web pages expire, whole blogs expire if you want," says Backes. "Other things that we are currently investigating is full automation, so full integration with the browser, so that whenever you upload to Facebook, you just automatically set an expiration date."

Currently, Xpire only works this way with the Firefox browser. And it costs about $3.50 per month.

A small price, some might say, for having some incriminating evidence from your college years automatically remove itself from YouTube before a potential employer finds it.